Overkill in New Orleans
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Heavily armed paramilitary mercenaries from the Blackwater private security firm, infamous for its work in Iraq, are openly patrolling the streets of New Orleans. Some of the mercenaries say they have been "deputized" by the Louisiana governor; indeed some are wearing gold Louisiana state law enforcement badges on their chests and Blackwater photo identification cards on their arms. They say they are on contract with the Department of Homeland Security and have been given the authority to use lethal force. Several mercenaries we spoke with said they had served in Iraq on the personal security details of the former head of the U.S. occupation, L. Paul Bremer and the former U.S. ambassador to Iraq, John Negroponte.
"This is a totally new thing to have guys like us working CONUS (Continental United States)," a heavily armed Blackwater mercenary told us as we stood on Bourbon Street in the French Quarter. "We're much better equipped to deal with the situation in Iraq."
Blackwater mercenaries are some of the most feared professional killers in the world and they are accustomed to operating without worry of legal consequences. Their presence on the streets of New Orleans should be a cause for serious concern for the remaining residents of the city and raises alarming questions about why the government would allow men trained to kill with impunity in places like Iraq and Afghanistan to operate here. Some of the men now patrolling the streets of New Orleans returned from Iraq as recently as two weeks ago.
What is most disturbing is the claim of several Blackwater mercenaries we spoke with that they are here under contract from the federal government and the state of Louisiana. Blackwater is one of the leading private security firms servicing the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan. It has several U.S. government contracts and has provided security for many senior U.S. diplomats, foreign dignitaries and corporations. The company rose to international prominence after four of its men were killed in Fallujah and two of their charred bodies were hung from a bridge in March 2004. Those killings sparked the massive U.S. retaliation against the civilian population of Fallujah that resulted in scores of deaths and tens of thousands of refugees.
Who Sent In the Mercs?
As the threat of forced evictions now looms in New Orleans and the city confiscates even legally registered weapons from civilians, the private mercenaries of Blackwater patrol the streets openly wielding M-16s and other assault weapons. This despite Police Commissioner Eddie Compass' claim that, "Only law enforcement are allowed to have weapons."
Officially, Blackwater says its forces are in New Orleans to "join the Hurricane relief effort." A statement on the company's website, dated Sept. 1, advertises airlift services, security services and crowd control. The company, according to news reports, has since begun taking private contracts to guard hotels, businesses and other properties. But what has not been publicly acknowledged is the claim, made to us by two Blackwater mercenaries, that they are actually engaged in general law enforcement activities including "securing neighborhoods" and "confronting criminals."
That raises a key question: under what authority are Blackwater's men operating? A spokesperson for the Homeland Security Department, Russ Knocke, told the Washington Post he knows of no federal plans to hire Blackwater or other private security. "We believe we've got the right mix of personnel in law enforcement for the federal government to meet the demands of public safety," he said.
But in an hour-long conversation with several Blackwater mercenaries, we heard a different story. The men we spoke with said they are indeed on contract with the Department of Homeland Security and the Louisiana governor's office and that some of them are sleeping in camps organized by Homeland Security in New Orleans and Baton Rouge. They told us they not only had authority to make arrests but also to use lethal force.
Where the Real Action Is
We encountered the Blackwater forces as we walked through the streets of the largely deserted French Quarter. We were talking with two New York City police officers when an unmarked car without license plates sped up next to us and stopped. Inside were three men, dressed in khaki uniforms, flak jackets and wielding automatic weapons. "Y'all know where the Blackwater guys are?" they asked. One of the police officers responded, "There are a bunch of them around here," and pointed down the road.
"Blackwater?" we asked. "The guys who are in Iraq?"
"Yeah," said the officer. "They're all over the place."
A short while later, as we continued down Bourbon Street, we ran into the men from the car. They wore Blackwater ID badges on their arms. "When they told me New Orleans, I said, 'What country is that in?'" one of the Blackwater men said. He was wearing his company ID around his neck in a carrying case with the phrase "Operation Iraqi Freedom" printed on it. After bragging about how he drives around Iraq in a "State Department issued level 5, explosion-proof BMW," he said he was "just trying to get back to Kirkuk [in the North of Iraq] where the real action is."
Later we overheard him on his cell phone complaining that Blackwater was only paying $350 a day plus per diem. That is much less than the men make serving in more dangerous conditions in Iraq.
Two men we spoke with said they plan on returning to Iraq in October. But, as one mercenary said, they've been told they could be in New Orleans for up to six months. "This is a trend," he told us. "You're going to see a lot more guys like us in these situations."
If Blackwater's reputation and record in Iraq are any indication of the kind of services the company offers, the people of New Orleans have much to fear.
Jeremy Scahill, a correspondent for the national radio and TV program Democracy Now!, and Daniela Crespo are in New Orleans.